What appears to be Paul’s first recorded statement on justification comes in Acts 13, in a sermon at Pisidian Antioch. It’s can serve as a summary of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and throws some important light on the themes of that letter.
Paul begins his sermon with a quick survey of Israel’s history. Addressed to “men of Israel,” the sermon traces the history of Israel from the Exodus, through the wildeerness and conquest, and the time of the judges (vv. 17-19).
The crucial moment in this telling of Israel’s history is the request for a king. Saul reigned for forty years, and then the Lord removed him and gave Israel a king “after My heart, who will do My will” (v. 22). The Davidic promise provides the impetus for the rest of Paul’s sermon. Paul preaches the fulfillment of promises to Israel, and specifically promises concerning a king. He cites Psalm 2, applying the language of “begetting” to the resurrection of Jesus. By the resurrection, Jesus becomes the Son who will reign on Zion. This fulfills other prophecies of David: the promise that the Lord will give the sure blessings of Davidic rule (v. 34; Isaiah 55:3) and the promise that the Lord would not allow His holy one to see decay (vv. 35-37).
The whole discourse is structured to highlight Jesus as the fulfillment of the Davidic promise
A. Men of Israel, v 16
B. Review of Israel from Exodus to Saul, vv 17-20
C. David, vv 21-22
D. Jesus: John’s testimony, death, res vv 23-31
C’. Proclaim good news of promise to David, vv 32-37
B’. Through Jesus, we are justified, 38-39
A’. Beware of fulfilling prophecy about enemies of God, 40-41
Jesus is the one who fulfills these Davidic prophecies and promises. He did not undergo decay, but was raised from the dead. As a result, forgiveness is pcoalimed in His name. And those who believe in Jesus – those who entrust themselves to Him and are loyal to Him, who declare allegiance to Him – are justified (dikaioo).
Verse 39 (v. 38 in the Greek text) states that “through Him everyone who believes is justified from all things, from which you could not be justified through the law of Moses.” Several elements are well-known Pauline themes: justification through faith, the contrast of justification by faith and justification by law.
Several features of this passage, though, are unusual, and may point to fresh angles on Paul’s discussions of justification in his letters. First, the addition of Mouseus specifies that Paul is not speaking of legal regulations in general but specifically of the Mosaic legislation.
Second, Paul speaks here of being justified from (apo) all things. Typically, Paul writes of being justified without any indication that there is something to be justified from. This hints that dikaioo here is not so much a verdict as an act of liberation, and many translators have followed that hint by translating the word as “freed.”
Finally, the contrast is not strictly between justification by faith and justification, but between justification from all things dia toutou, through this (resurrected) one, and justification en nomo. The contrasting instruments – or, better, subjects – of the liberation are not faith and works but Jesus and the law of Moses. As Paul says in Romans 8, God has done what the law could not do, sending His son in the likeness of flesh as an offering for sin.
The contrast is not between being right with God by the work of Jesus versus being right with God through our efforts to obey God’s commandments. Rather, Paul contrasts two possible justifying powers, Jesus and the law. One is effective, the other isn’t; Jesus is effective in a way that the Torah is not. The contrast is between the work that the law does (“works of the law”) and the work that Jesus accomplishes. What the law could not do, Jesus has done.
The problem isn’t that we can’t obey enough to make ourselves right with God. The problem, as Paul describes it in Romans 7-8, is that the law is impotent to come to the rescue, to carry out the liberating judgment, to make itself effective. The law is incapable of doing anything but provoking the flesh to sin; it cannot kill flesh and raise it up in the Spirit. But God has done that, and so through Jesus we are justified from all those things that enslaved us in the old order, those things that only became more severe taskmasters when empowered by the law.
In Acts 13:39, then, justification is “liberation from all (enslaving) things through Jesus the Christ, the Davidic king, including those enslavements that the law could not liberate from.” And I submit that justification means the same elsewhere in Paul.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.